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Oleander, Homelands, & Long Journeys

The waxing and waning reports of people crossing our southern border bring to mind the times I have cared for children in resiliency centers in Texas and Afghan children at Fort Bliss. Why did I do that? 

Lured by Catherine the Great’s promises of farmland in Russia and freedom from military service for 200 years, my ancestors emigrated from Germany. As is so often the case in world history, the promise of land was not upheld so they settled in German communities west of the Volga River.

My grandfather often choked up as he shared about the untenable conditions in the Russian army when he was conscripted at the end of those 200 years. My newlywed grandparents were among those who came to Canada early in the 20th century. My grandmother got pregnant on the boat to Canada, then harvested potatoes in the morning before giving birth to her firstborn, my father. She returned later in the day to finish harvesting the potatoes.

Thanking God for every new oleander blossom stirred in me the desire to visit her home village.

She brought to Canada with her two oleander shoots that over the years grew into bushes in her sun porch in summer and dining room in winter. I remember peering through the branches while enjoying the roast goose recipe from her homeland on New Years Day.  The vivid memories of her showing me faces in pansies, rubbing mint for me to sniff, and thanking God for every new oleander blossom stirred in me the desire to visit her home village. I put it off too long – with the war between Russia and Ukraine I expect that will not happen in my lifetime.

Oleander always evokes these memories in the homelands of many who migrate to the U.S. I am reminded of how they are just like my grandparents, seeking better lives and for their families and future generations. 

Although migration is a hot topic in our polarized context, I am compelled to share the stories of real people I have met. People like an exhausted woman I will call Julie in a shelter, carrying a tiny newborn and plastic bag of diapers and formula from the hospital. She had given birth a day earlier, shortly after having been released into the U.S.  Her thin pale two-year-old seemed overwhelmed by the shelter environment and new sister. 

Her question “Might they keep my baby and send me back?” brought a lump to my throat

Julie shared she had been traveling for eight months since leaving her home in a country where people at that time were dying of hunger in the streets.  Her family encouraged her to make the journey after her husband had left her; I am not sure she even knew she was pregnant when she left. She spoke of being grabbed by her calves in efforts to pull her off the “beast” (series of freight trains used by migrants) but “All they got was my shoes”. Another young mom nearby said the same thing had happened to her. 

Julie spoke of spending nights alone in the woods and at other times needing to clamp her hand over her son’s mouth so they would not be discovered. Her eyes glistened with tears as she spoke of the unaccompanied 6 and 8 years olds she saw. Shuddering as she shared how she could not understand how anyone could do “that” to them.  “That” was often referred to by women whose slumped shoulders, lack of eye contact and defeated expressions spoke more eloquently than their words.

Julie’s phone was not working, she was not sure when she would be leaving the center and where she would go. Her question “Might they keep my baby and send me back?” brought a lump to my throat as I thought of Sarah Quesada’s three primary pathways for migration into the U.S. 

  1. Blood (Family -based immigration).  I expect most of us know of one or more of our relatives who came with the assistance of a sibling who shared about the good life here.

  2. Sweat (Employment-based immigration). That is the way I came to the U.S. where I am a resident alien. As I think of what that journey has been like for me as one who is educated, fluent in English, and whose life is not threatened in my homeland.

  3. Chance (The Diversity Visa-Lottery). Beginning in 1995 this program allows those from countries with low immigration rates to the U.S. the chance to apply for a U.S. immigrant visa. They still need to meet all of the requirements and, as of this writing applications for 2023 are already closed.

  4. Tears (Refugees or Asylee Status). The rules keep changing, even as recently as August of this year.

The world has changed too with more than 108 million people fleeing for their lives from war, persecution, poverty, corruption, and natural disasters. Sharing the stories of real people resulted in requests from friends and acquaintances to “help us learn more”. 

In response, I have taken two groups to Abara, a place of learning and connecting across divides. Trip participant Diane Dygraaf described her visit in the Banner “That day, we were just people. Doing something fun. Enjoying each other’s presence. We saw past the barriers of language, culture, skin color, and country.” 

We recognized the dignity in those anxiously awaiting the possibility of a new future, each of whom were created with something unique that shows the image of God. I am grateful to Abara for providing venues to do that. Contact Abara or me to learn more.

Photo by Svetlana B.


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